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Sen. Dorgan on Native Youth, Sequestration, and the Dysfunctional Congress

Indian Country Today Media Network recently interviewed former Sen. Byron Dorgan about Native youth, sequestration, and the dysfunctional Congress.

It’s been three years since the retirement of U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), former chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, but he has kept Indian country near and dear to his heart. The Department of Justice recently announced that he is co-chairing a commission on Indian youth safety and violence issues, and his Center for Native American Youth is keeping up the pressure on policy makers to do right by Indian children and families. In an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, Dorgan, now a policy advisor with Arent Fox, catches us up on his post-Senate work for Indian country.

Hello, senator, please update us on the progress of the Center for Native American Youth.

I’m really pleased with what we’ve done do far. We’ve created a start-up non-profit from scratch. In 2 ½ years, I think we’ve done some significant things. We’re focusing on the well-being of Native American youth; we’re working on teen suicide prevention; and education opportunities—a series of issues. We’re also doing youth summits on Indian reservations, working with tribal officials, and parents and children. We created a program called “Champions for Change” in which we’re seeking and finding some extraordinary young people on reservations across the country who have been nominated by their tribes. We have been able to celebrate their successes and create mentors back home for others on their reservations. I’m really, really pleased with what we’ve been doing.

Have there been challenges?

It’s gone pretty much as we expected. There are over 500 Indian tribes in the United States, and some of them are remote and small, and some of them are large with large reservations—so you have very different circumstances. We’ve worked closely with the National Congress of American Indians, and we’ve had good relationships with the tribes. I decided long ago, and I know from the work I did in Congress, consultation is unbelievably important. You can’t work on these issues without having very close consultation with tribal officials and parents. So, we’ve done that, and I think we’re making a difference in the lives of children.

In the current Congress, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) recently introduced legislation with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) that would create a federal Commission on Native American Children. How do you feel about that idea?

RELATED: Sen. Heitkamp Discusses Her Plans to Help Native American Children

She consulted with me and my staff at the Center, and we were well aware of the commission as it was drafted, and we offered some suggestions as well. I think it is an important step as well. It’s another way to shine all the spotlights on Native youth. A presidential commission will be helpful.

Various tribal advocates and leaders are concerned that this administration is not doing enough to support Native education—any thoughts on that?

I think it’s always the case that there needs to be more focus from every administration and every Congress on Native education. It’s the stepping stone to progress and to opportunity for children. I think Indian children have for a long, long period been left behind. And that “left behind” statement refers not just to education, but especially to education. It’s safe to say that no administration, including this one, and no Congress, including this one, ever does enough. Until they start meeting promises and commitments that have been made, it will never be enough.

How do you get beyond a campaign promise to improve Native education to actually doing it?

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It requires resources. It isn’t just a money problem, but more resources are certainly necessary. Sequestration has been a fundamentally ignorant policy. It cut investments in the most vulnerable Americans [instead of focusing on cutting] at the same level that it cut the most wasteful federal spending. That’s ignorant public policy. But I know that President Obama has had great interest in Indian issues, and he cares about them; I’ve talked to him about them. But, you know, the country has kind of ridden into a box canyon here on funding issues. And putting sequestration on top of it all was a real cut in education and a number of other elements important to Native children.

Should federal tribal funding have special protection and not be treated as discretionary funding that can be cut at will?

These should not be faucets of funds that can be turned off and on. These are commitments by treaty and by promises made. I think they should have been protected against sequestration, and they should be protected into the future.

The Tribal Law and Order Act was a major piece of legislation that was signed into law under your tenure, and there was recently a report out from Troy Eid and the Indian Law and Order Commission that highlighted some ways for the federal government to make that law and its effects stronger. Have you reviewed the report and realized its scope?

I have, and I think they did a lot of interesting work. They have come up with proposals that are creative and unique and worthy of significant consideration by the president and Congress. The circuit court idea focusing on Indian justice is a specific proposal that I think should be seriously considered by the Congress. It reflects the issue of tribal sovereignty in a thoughtful way and creates a new system where tribes would have substantially more authority and capability, but there would be protective reviews as well.

You have long been a proponent of bipartisanship on Indian issues especially. What do you think about the recent change in Senate filibuster rules that will allow 51 senators to affirm presidential nominees, making it easier for the majority to do so?

My inclination when serving was to be very cautious about changing the rules, because there are significant consequences to doing so. But, the fact is that since I left, things have gotten much, much worse, and I think the Republicans have decided on a strategy that would mean the president would not have the ability to appoint nominees to the courts and to certain federal agencies. That is not something that the administration and the Democratic majority in Congress should allow to happen. I think they finally had enough, and they said that can’t happen anymore. “Advise and consent” does not mean wholesale stoppage of nominees just because they are nominated by a president of the other party.

Will there be retribution from Republicans if they regain the majority in the Senate?

When you do this, you should expect that at some point you will lose the majority, and those in the majority will use as justification for what they want to do that these rules were changed. That’s a result that could very well happen.

Are you happy to be out of the Senate?

(Laughs) Well, I’m doing a lot of other things, and I’m enjoying it immensely. I do miss going to a vote on the floor of the Senate and seeing all my friends, Republicans and Democrats that you can share tall tales with and enjoy companionship. But I made the right decision. I had been in Congress for 30 years, and I wanted to do some other things, which I am doing now—teaching, consulting, and writing more books. But the most important thing to me has been being able to create a non-profit organization to reach out to and support Indian children.